The name Hiroshima means different things to different people. For most foreigners, the name of this medium-sized city in southwestern Japan immediately evokes images of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb in World War II. To baseball fans in Japan, the name brings to mind the beloved local team, the Hiroshima Carp. And for car buffs, it is the birthplace of Mazda and its legendary rotary engine.
One thing the name Hiroshima does not usually bring to mind – despite its deservedly famous oysters and sake – is gourmet cuisine.
So, it was a pleasant surprise to discover, on a recent visit, that exciting things are indeed happening in Hiroshima’s culinary world.
We arrived at the city, after a visit to the World Heritage Site of Itsukushima Shrine on the nearby island of Miyajima, with a booking at Nikai Sasaki, a kappo restaurant, which is less formal than a kaiseki, haute cuisine, restaurant but more so than an izakaya, or typical Japanese bistro.
Our hopes were not high, since it was a restaurant that we had found on the internet, rather than through a personal recommendation. What’s more, the name Nikai Sasaki sounded rather mundane, as it means “Sasaki on the second floor”.
It did not help either that we had just had a fabulous meal at Iwaso, a ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, on the island of Miyajima, which is famous for its locally-sourced cuisine.
When we arrived at Nikai Sasaki, we were shown into a small room on the second floor, as advertised, up a flight of narrow, steep stairs and along a corridor that could barely fit one person at a time.
Despite the cramped conditions, the decor was impeccable – clean, light wood, simple furnishings, a touch of nature here and there – creating a pleasantly serene atmosphere.
The waiting staff were all models of friendliness and professional service, even though they had to be super careful not to crash into each other as they navigated the tight spaces.
We were surprised from the start by the first dish of our Y9,800 11-course meal – an unusual sushi of awabi, or abalone, which was succulent and neatly complemented by a slightly bitter sauce made with awabi liver.
The sushi rice was perfectly al dente, offsetting the abalone’s chewy texture.
It was rather difficult to discern what lay beneath the dark, slimy and mysterious surface of the next course, which turned out to be fresh crab covered with a sauce of aonori, a kind of seaweed, and decorated with chrysanthemum petals.
As someone who appreciates crab and adores the texture and slightly briny taste of aonori, I relished this dish that highlighted the importance of seafood in Hiroshima cooking.
Goma-dofu, or sesame tofu, is another favorite dish of mine, which I have enjoyed at many a fancy kaiseki restaurant. But I had never experienced anything like the goma-dofu here, which was our third course.
This sesame tofu was soft and silky and came with pieces of hiratake, or oyster mushrooms. On the side was half a monaka, a light and crisp wafer which usually has sweet adzuki bean paste sandwiched inside, but instead contained a serving of sea urchin and lily bulb – a novel and winning combination.
The next course was, perhaps, the most surprising and captivating. In a dark bowl came a creamy soup with pieces of fish and thin slices of yuzu, the distinctive citrus fruit that imparts a tart and fragrant freshness to so many Japanese dishes.
The soup was made, of all things, of oysters from nearby Hatsukaichi, where Itsukushima Shrine and the island of Miyajima are located. It was smooth, creamy, aromatic and full of umami and while it tasted clearly like oysters, it also contained completely different flavors.
Considered a top delicacy, shirako, or fish milt, is often featured in high-end kaiseki meals. It is not one of my favorite dishes due to its cloying texture and given the relatively informal vibe of Nikai Sasaki, I was somewhat surprised at being served shirako as our fifth course.
The shirako, which came from Rebun Island, off the northwestern tip of Hokkaido, was extremely creamy, as shirako tends to be. But this creaminess, which I sometimes find overwhelming, was offset by a sauce of pungent yuzukosho, a type of seasoning made with chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt, and olive oil, producing a nicely balanced combination.
This being Hiroshima, the next two courses also featured seafood – a sampling of yellowtail marinated in soy sauce, and a sashimi of anago, pike conger eel, and hokkigai, surf clam.
Of all the courses, this was the least satisfying, which was surprising given Hiroshima’s specialization in seafood. But the yellowtail sadly did not taste as fresh as I would have liked, perhaps due to the sauce.
Much more to my liking was the grilled fish and succulent slices of beef which were the next two courses.
No fine Japanese meal is complete without what is called the “shime” or closing dish, which is more often than not a bowl of rice cooked in an earthen pot and served with pickles, miso soup and occasionally a few other condiments.
Nikai Sasaki did not disappoint with its shime. The rice was perfectly al dente and aromatic and nicely complemented by the marinated baby fish, raw egg, pickles and light miso soup.
We left the restaurant, satisfied but not in the least bloated even after a dessert of yuzu sorbet, wondering how it was possible to have such an excellent meal at an unknown restaurant we had serendipitously discovered online. Nikai Sasaki will continue to be a topic of conversation and a destination on our next visit to Hiroshima.